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The Third Party Project

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" 'History in the Making' was emblazoned on delegates' badges at the founding convention of the Labor Party, on June 6-9, 1996 in Cleveland, Ohio where some 1400 mostly-union delegates formed a new independent working class party. A constitution was created, an elementary national structure was formed, and an unusually progressive platform was hammered out by this first national union-based 'labor party' since the 19th Century. For about three years the challenge of a labor party spread widely and enticed many unions and individuals to it. At its peak in 1998-9 the party had some 15,000 members, 50 local chapters, and several hundred endorsing or affiliated unions that represented two million workers (some 13 percent of the unionized)." The Labor Party:Past and Possible Future, Robert H. Mast

The Labor Party was a profound and focused effort within the ranks of organized labor to build a political party that represented its interests. In spite of its optimistic beginning, it was unable to fulfill its original mandate. Instead, it acquiesced to the larger and more powerful Democratic Party. It never ran candidates, but continued to make noises as if it was going to at any time. When Ralph Nader ran in 2000, an internal momentum developed in which much of the Labor Party's base supported his Green Party candidacy. This destroyed the prior rationale of not running until victory was assured. It also broke the ability of the union leadership to demonstrate any form of political leadership or concrete victories through the Democratic Party. Questions remain as to the original intent of the Labor Party. Was it an effort to deny labor support for the emerging Green Party? Or was it simply a party that went astray from its original mission? In spite of Tony Mazzocchi's long relationship with Ralph Nader, he clearly stopped short of endorsing Nader at the Green Party's presidential nominating convention.

"The definition of a 'party' ranges widely, from being simply a pressure group, to directing the policies of a government. A political party struggles for power, and in a democracy that struggle supposedly is expressed at the ballot box. Whether or not to be an active electoral party has been a burning issue throughout the short life of the LP. This widely debated question has been the source of unease and rancor throughout the LP system. Being close to organized labor and desiring labor's support, the founding leadership strongly discouraged early electoral activity. Shortly after the 1996 founding convention, the energized Buffalo, NY chapter went into an electoral mode, causing the National to revoke the chapter's charter. This had a decided impact on the electoral ambitions of other chapters. It still is unclear whether leaders like Tony Mazzocchi and Bob Wages ever envisioned the LP being anything but an agitation-propaganda vehicle. Critics say that the closeness of LP founders to the organized labor bureaucracy and its pro-Democratic Party policy tarnished their political judgment and induced inactivity on the independent electoral front. Adding further complexity, unionists have not been solid Democrat: nearly four in 10 voted Republican in the 2000 presidential election." Mast, Robert H.

The problem appears to rest on the presumption that a center-left coalition here in the US will produce something substantive in the way of reform and democracy. It is difficult to grasp how such a strategy can be proven successful when the left chooses to withdraw its independence once such alliances are implemented. How can an anti-war, pro-peace agenda be developed with the DLC or the DNC when the center requires the left to abandon its positions and its activism as a precondition for unity? In the absence of a third party there is no platform for structural changes needed to democratize America and increase the voice of the marginalized. There is no movement in the streets that can substitute for elected public officials capable of writing, passing and implementing legislation that serves the peoples' interests.

"LP supporters who wanted an electoral policy undoubtedly numbered in the thousands and came mostly from left and union democracy backgrounds. Many were spunky and free-spoken delegates to the 1996 founding convention who co-mingled with representatives of the more electoral-leaning founding unions - ILWU (west coast) and United Electrical Workers. Though this convention turned down an electoral resolution, the ground was laid for the formation of an electoral commission that came up with a draft of an Electoral Strategy. This was hotly debated, then accepted, at the 1998 founding convention (http://www.thelaborparty.org/a_electo.html) and is in many respects a very advanced 'third party' electoral approach. It declares the LP's independence of the corporations and their Democrat and Republican political representatives, and it aspires to the working class majority taking political power. LP candidates for office and LP elected officials would be strictly accountable to the party membership and platform - before, during, and between elections. They would run solely as LP candidates (no fusion with other parties), and the LP would not endorse any non-LP candidates. Also very advanced was the strategy of "building solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions." In effect, the electoral process would cast an LP unit into a bridging role between various constituent entities and perhaps as a catalyst for their interaction and unity." Mast, Robert H.

No matter the intention of the fusionists, all of us who have devoted much time and energy building an independent Green Party in states throughout the U.S. are left with the wreckage, and new options for the future will create their own challenges. Either we finally admit the failure of fusion, or we will suffer the repetition of other parties and fade into oblivion. Fusion is an illusion. But an independent party needs continued financial support, candidate recruitment and an intention to persist in the project to empower large segments of the American voting public. It needs professional advisors and campaigns that reach out to broad sections of the American people. It needs contributors that support an independent third party and who are willing to disregard the rhetoric from the two parties that keeps telling us that everything works through them.

"But then, along came Ralph Nader who altered the 'third party' balance. Nader, who had a long relationship with Tony Mazzocchi on common progressive causes, had addressed both the 1996 and 1998 conventions of the LP. He counseled the LP to run candidates in the 90 percent of congressional districts where there is little or no opposition. Then Mazzocchi, already impressed by Jesse Ventura's win of the Minnesota governorship, was a keynoter at the 2000 Green Party national convention in Denver where Nader was nominated as presidential candidate. This reportedly further alienated the LP from organized labor which disliked the Greens for their alleged spoiling of Democratic candidates that labor supported. A further complication resulted from the endorsement of Nader by two LP founding unions - United Electrical Workers and the California Nurses Association. The LP was further weakened by an exodus of many staunch activists to work on the Nader campaign. Many of them never returned to the LP - another nail in the coffin." Mast, Robert H. This inroad lacked a real follow-up after 2000 and a concerted long-term but it did demonstrate how it was possible to establish a Green base among labor unions.

The run-off election of Matt Gonzalez also saw some movement in support for his Green candidacy for Mayor of San Francisco. Most of the unions and traditional Democratic bases of support stayed with the Democrats, although there was a lot of threatening noises made towards Democratic clubs leaning towards Gonzalez. In looking at this election, it is important to note that the Gonzalez campaign was not a "spoiler" effort by an unknown Green. It was a head-to-head battle with a Green with his own constituencies and track record in public office, both as a Democrat and as a Green. It is significant that the Democratic Party brought out national leaders to get people in line. Matt's agenda became secondary to Democratic Party dominance. It was likewise significant that organized labor chose to retain its allegiance to the Democratic Party in the face of an alternative. For Greens, that should provide us with a certain perspective regarding how far organized labor is prepared to go on behalf of the Democratic Party.

"Many loyal but critical LP activists claim the lack of electoral activity to be one of the main causes of the party's decline. They look back with awe to earlier times when local labor organizations across the country were forming parties independent of their national unions and the two major parties. These labor parties were fielding candidates and often winning office. With some good cause, the loyal LP critics believed that the very act of running candidates would bring many new members into the party and help it grow. Some loyal critics pointed to the various electoral successes of the Green Party at the local level (city councils, school boards, etc.) as evidence that a dedicated body of 'third party' volunteers could win elections. Many in the pro-electoral camp advocated running LP candidates only in those districts that would not compete with a candidate endorsed by organized labor. Opponents of electoralism, also with good cause, worried that the LP would lose complete credibility if a candidate won only the two or three percent of the vote of the 'typical' third party. The debate never was resolved since no LP body ever developed the wherewithal to become electoral." Mast, Robert H.

In the end the Labor Party lost most of its raison d'etre, its rationale and reason for being. If it wasn't running candidates, then what was its purpose? Unions already had Political Action Committees and labor education and leadership programs. The AFL-CIO had demonstrated its own official subservience to the Democratic Party. The rank-and-file were increasingly voting Republican since the Reagan era. Fusion was once again the death knell of another third party effort. While the need for a third party has repeatedly been demonstrated, most advocacy groups, 501(3)c groups, and lobbyists remain persistently and adamantly opposed to the work needed to move beyond the primitiveness of political organization and solidly attached to the Democrats. Sooner or later these groups will learn the hard way, as Ralph Nader did, that the place for this battle is in the creation of a cohesive party that is able to win over a majority of the electorate.

Another example of the demise of a third party is the New Party. On its website stands a banner at the top "FUSION IS THE SOLUTION" Their statement indicates their lack of willingness to build their own party if it results in the defeat of progressives. "Our current work and long-term strategy is to change states' election rules to allow fusion voting - a method of voting that allows minor parties to have their own ballot line with which they can either endorse their own candidates or endorse the candidates of other parties. Through fusion, minor parties don't have to always compete in the winner-take-all two party system and can avoid "spoiling" - throwing an election to the most conservative candidate by splitting the votes that might go to two more progressive candidates (ours and another party's)." http://www.newparty.org/

It appears as if the Green Party has become split over this issue of fusion, and its future may very well depend on the ability of its leadership to realize the cost of undercutting its own potential for growth for the benefit of the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Many Greens crossed over during the primary to support Dennis Kucinich, while others continued after the primaries to support the pro-war Democratic Party candidate, John Kerry. This is the Green side of the reticence to establish a long-term objective capable of winning influence and political power. Greens have often become mired in a primitive level of organization and have had profound difficulties in defining short and long-term goals that we can focus on as an organization both in the states and at the national level. This is not to disregard the impact of the party-raiding activities of such personalities as Dennis Kucinich, Barney Franks and Tom Hayden who have spent much energy in seeking to sidetrack or demobilize the effort for an independent party. It's just saying that we have played a part in our own difficulty in effectively functioning within the political system. It is also worth repeating here that the Democratic Party has made concerted efforts states around the country to restrict ballot access, public campaign financing for third party candidates and litigated to minimize the influence of third party candidates..

The other major third party experience, the Reform Party, demonstrated that there is indeed a space in the election for president in 1992. H. Ross Perot using his own resources and focusing on the budget deficit was able to get 19% of the popular vote. Despite its presidential campaign, the party organization was never able to deepen its own platform and agenda. The Reform Party was taken out of the picture by Patrick Buchanan by 2000. "The party -- which was founded on reform of taxation and government but was mostly quiet on hot-button social issues -- was bitterly divided between nominating Buchanan and nominating John Hagelin, an Iowa physicist whose platform was based on transcendental meditation. Supporters of Hagelin charged that the results of the party's write-in primary, which favored Buchanan by a wide margin, were 'tainted'. The (Reform) party's delegates ignored the election and voted to nominate Hagelin, creating a split in the party with two camps claiming legitimacy for separate candidates. Ultimately, Buchanan won the nomination when the Federal Elections Commission ruled that Buchanan would receive ballot status as the Reform candidate and some $12.6 million dollars in federal campaign funds secured by Perot's showing in the1996 election." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Joseph_Buchanan He finished in fourth place nationwide with 449,895 votes, or 0.4% of the popular vote.

Throughout the last half of the twentieth century there have been third party efforts with a substantial base of support. Although the agendas are by no means consistent or harmonious, they do demonstrate that the two party system is inadequate in providing representation for many people. Likewise, the continued effort to channel opposition away from the electoral arena has for generations successfully undermined the ability to win any significant political changes. But this means that others begin to recognize the significance of the efforts by Ralph Nader and begin to evaluate the relative success of their own efforts to work through the two-parties.

With thanks to Bob Mast for much of this article. Robert H. Mast has published Detroit Lives (Temple University Press, 1994) and (with Anne Mast) Autobiography of Protest in Hawaii (University of Hawaii Press, 1996), as well as various articles on labor, race, and community. A semi-retired sociologist, he is a member of UAW Local 1981 (National Writers Union), an officer in the Detroit Labor Party chapter, and an activist in Detroit. For years, he was actively engaged in Albuquerque, NM with both the Green Party of New Mexico and the Labor Party.
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Martin Zehr is an American political writer in the San Francisco area. He spent 8 years working as a volunteer water planner for the Middle Rio Grande region. http://www.waterassembly.org His article on the Kirkuk Referendum has been printed by the Kurdish Regional Government, http://www.moera-krg.org/articles/detail.asp?smap=01030000&lngnr=12&anr=12121&rnr=140 Another article was reprinted in its entirety by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) http://www.puk.org/web/htm/news/nws/news070514.html He is a Contributing Writer to Kurdish Aspect more...)

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